Organist Christopher Houlihan Explains His Marathon Celebration of the Great, Underrated Composer Louis Vierne
This coming June 2 at the Church of the Ascension, 5th Ave. at 10th St., renowned organist Christopher Houlihan plays symphonic works by legendary, cutting-edge French composer Louis Vierne to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Vierne’s dramatic death. At 3 PM Houlihan plays Symphonies No. 1, 3 and 5; and at 7:30 PM, Symphonies No. 2, 4 and 6. Houlihan managed to take some time away from rehearsals to shed some light on this herculean endeavor.
Lucid Culture: First of all, congratulations for creating www.vierne2012.com. As you’ll remember, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times created a stir with his “ten best composers of alltime” list last year. It inspired me to come up with one of my own, and I picked Louis Vierne as one of my top ten. Why do you think such an extraordinary and eclectic composer isn’t better known?
Christopher Houlihan: Good choice! If Vierne is remembered at all, he is thought of as a composer of organ music. He certainly wrote some of his greatest music for the organ, but that only makes up a very small part of his output, actually. I’ve gotten to know some of his other compositions while I’ve been preparing the six symphonies and have to say – his other music is stunning. The Violin Sonata and Piano Quintet are particular favorites of mine. I think the reason he’s largely unknown is because his musical language was fairly conservative by early 20th century standards. He identified more with the style of Franck than Debussy. But the musical world of Paris surrounding Vierne was hearing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and the Rite of Spring. Vierne’s music is spectacular, but wasn’t as shocking as the other music of his time. That being said, nothing like these symphonies had ever been written for the organ before!
LC: Would you agree that Vierne’s career mirrors the paradigm shifting from Romanticism to Modernism just as much as, say, Debussy’s or Ravel’s, both of whom were his contemporaries?
CH: I’d actually say Vierne was firmly planted in Romanticism and not much of a modernist. His music definitely becomes more and more chromatic as he ages, but it is always rooted in tonality. His musical structures are always very clear. I think it just took organ music a lot longer to catch up with Romanticism than the rest of the music world – after Bach, there was very little significant organ music written until Mendelssohn and Franck in the mid-nineteenth century!
LC: For those who aren’t familiar with the organ demimonde and its history, can you explain the rather grisly events of June 2, 1937 in the organ console at Notre-Dame in Paris?
CH: After the clergy of Notre-Dame decided that organ recitals weren’t going to be allowed in the cathedral any longer, a “final” recital was planned. Vierne finished playing his Triptyque, then was programmed to perform an improvisation – something French organists are famous for. He set up the organ’s stops…then he had a heart attack! His foot landed on low E, and everyone in the audience thought it was the start of the improvisation, but he had actually died! Because the story of his death is so legendary, I think it’s very appropriate to commemorate the 75th anniversary with a celebration of his music. I’m constantly reminded not to reenact his death as well!
LC: Vierne had a tough life – a gentle soul who was practically blind since childhood, who lost family and friends in World War I, was forced to tour the US to raise funds to repair the organ at Notre Dame after the war…the list goes on. To what extent do you think Vierne transcended his suffering?
CH: Vierne was used to overcoming setbacks: he learned to play the organ despite being blind! The organ is probably more complicated than any other solo instrument, and that’s if you can see! So, I think he transcended his suffering a great deal. Sure, in a lot of his music one can really sense this was a man who knew suffering, but there is almost always extreme joy and beauty alongside the angst. One can’t hear the Final to the Sixth Symphony and think Vierne was anything but an optimist.
LC: Much of Vierne’s work has been described as diabolical, especially Symphony No. 3 – which you’re playing on June 2 here in New York. Do you feel that’s an accurate assessment?
CH: Much of it is diabolical, but that’s really only gives half of the picture. His music is also very sensual, playful, silly, and joyful. Vierne’s music explores the full range of human emotion. But when it is diabolical, it doesn’t just rain, it pours! The Final to Symphony 4 is about as wild as it gets.
LC: You’re going to play the entire set of Vierne symphonies – all six – at the Church of the Ascension in the West Village on June 2. Isn’t that a bit much? That’s an enormous amount of music by any standard. The Beatles and the Doors would play four sets a night on the Reeperbahn or at the Fillmore, Muddy Waters would play all night in Chicago juke joints, but what you’re doing is vastly more demanding. What kind of preparation does one have to go through to pull this off?
CH: Sometimes I think I’m a little crazy for doing this, yes! It is a lot of music, in total shortly under four hours worth. But, I chose to perform the symphonies in two halves, odd numbers at 3 PM and even numbers at 7:30 PM. This way, each recital is totally digestible and gives the listener a taste of the changes in Vierne’s style over the course of his life. Preparing this music for performance hasn’t been easy but has been worth every sacrifice: this music deserves to be heard.
LC: Why a fullscale symphony cycle? Why not include some of Vierne’s shorter pieces for variation? Clair de Lune, that gorgeous lullaby, maybe one of the clock chime variations – I’m thinking the Longpont Cathedral, perhaps?
CH: Of course Vierne wrote a lot more for organ than just the Symphonies, but they are really his most monumental works for the instrument. The 24 Fantasy Pieces are sort of like the Debussy Preludes for Piano, some with equally whimsical titles: Naïdes (Water Nymphs), Hymne au soleil (Hymn to the Sun), Feux Follets (Will o’ the Wisp), Étoile du soir (Night Star)… these titles almost make you forget the sadness in Vierne’s life!
LC: Are you recording these performances so that we can enjoy them later?
CH: I eventually would love to record the symphonies for a CD release, but don’t think I’ll be releasing any live recordings of these marathons.
LC: New York has many world-famous organs: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue and “Smoky Mary’s” on 46th St. have tremendous vintage instruments whose tonalities are well-suited to the French Romantic repertoire. Why the Church of the Ascension?
CH: The brand-new organ at the Church of the Ascension is totally unique among instruments in New York and is just perfect for the music of Vierne. It was installed last year, built by the French organ builder Pascal Quorin. It is the only French-built organ in New York City and one of only two in the country. There are certainly no shortage of wonderful North-American built organs here in the city, but this instrument has a certain je ne sais quoi about it that I love. You could even say it does more than just speak with a French accent – it speaks French fluently.
LC: Can I ask you what drew you to the organ initially – and what drew you to Vierne?
CH: I think initially I was drawn to the mechanics and extreme sounds of the organ, as many people are: the buttons, pedals, and keyboards, and the very quiet and very loud sounds the instrument can often produce. What sustains my interest isn’t a love of “the organ,” which can’t create beauty on its own, but my love of the music that’s been written for it and the opportunities I’ve had to share this music with audiences.
I can’t explain why I’ve been drawn to Vierne’s music, but I know what I love about it: it is colorful, dynamic, exciting, and packed with emotion. These symphonies, I think, are not what people expect when they think of organ music, especially because they don’t expect organ music to be so personal. But Vierne’s music is about as intimate as it gets.
LC: To what degree are you preaching to the converted? What I mean to say is that there are those of us who can never get enough Louis Vierne – but most other classical music fans have no idea of who he was or why his music is so relevant and vital to this day. Do you really think you can connect beyond the Pipedreams crowd, such that it is?
CH: I can’t help but think of an interview with the late American organist Robert Glasgow, who was asked – on Pipedreams! – how an audience unfamiliar with the Symphonie Romane of Widor – who was Vierne’s teacher – should approach listening to the work. He simply said: “Don’t worry about whether it’s coming from the organ or not; it’s just music.” And Vierne’s music communicates, plain and simple. I can’t tell you how many times after playing a recital I’ve heard: “This was my first organ concert and I had no idea it was going to be this exciting!” Somehow organ recitals have gained the reputation of being boring, but music like Vierne’s is anything but boring. I know anyone coming to this music for the first time will be very pleasantly surprised at what they find.